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In the Looking Glass

, 232 pages

52 halftones, 1 line drawing

July 2017



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In the Looking Glass

Mirrors and Identity in Early America


What did it mean, Rebecca K. Shrum asks, for people—long-accustomed to associating reflective surfaces with ritual and magic—to became as familiar with how they looked as they were with the appearance of other people? Fragmentary histories tantalize us with how early Americans—people of Native, European, and African descent—interacted with mirrors.

Shrum argues that mirrors became objects through which white men asserted their claims to modernity, emphasizing mirrors as fulcrums of truth that enabled them to know and master themselves and their world. In claiming that mirrors revealed and substantiated their own enlightenment and rationality, white men sought to differentiate how they used mirrors from not only white women but also from Native Americans and African Americans, who had long claimed ownership of and the right to determine the meaning of mirrors for themselves. Mirrors thus played an important role in the construction of early American racial and gender hierarchies.

Drawing from archival research, as well as archaeological studies, probate inventories, trade records, and visual sources, Shrum also assesses extant mirrors in museum collections through a material culture lens. Focusing on how mirrors were acquired in America and by whom, as well as the profound influence mirrors had, both individually and collectively, on the groups that embraced them, In the Looking Glass is a piece of innovative textual and visual scholarship.

Rebecca K. Shrum is an assistant professor of history and the assistant director of the public history program at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.

"A very interesting and thought-provoking book about the cultural role, multifaceted meanings, and uses of mirrors and looking glasses in early America. Taking an interdisciplinary approach, Shrum offers a rich and compelling account."

"This brief volume, meticulously footnoted, generously illustrated, and beautifully produced by the Johns Hopkins University Press, could certainly be adopted in advanced undergraduate and graduate courses. It might well teach history majors and graduate students the value of daring to ask questions for which there are no easy or complete answers, and of painstakingly piecing together fragmentary evidence from a wide range of archival, archaeological, and material collections. Shrum’s intelligent use of cultural theory and interdisciplinary perspectives might also serve as a model for advanced history students."

"A superb reflection of the many meanings held by an object usually taken for granted. Highly recommended."

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